At age 18, Casey Eichfeld called it “a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Little did he know that he would be heading to the Olympics for a second time, at age 22. And then — this month — for a third trip to the Games.
Beijing, London, and now Rio de Janeiro. Not bad for a kid who grew up in Drums with thoughts of the world’s biggest stage.
This year he’ll make history, becoming the first American canoeist to compete in two disciplines in the same Games.
“It’s incredible,” Eichfeld said. “No matter how it turns out, I’m so honored to be part of U.S. history.”
Eichfeld will participate in two canoe slalom events — the men’s single (C1) and the men’s double (C2) along with teammate Devin McEwan. The single gets underway at 11:30 a.m. Sunday, and the double-canoe competition begins at 11:30 a.m. Monday. Live streams of the events will be available at NBColympics.com.
The biggest difference for Eichfeld, naturally, is experience.
As a teenager preparing for his first Olympics eight years ago, Eichfeld acknowledged it was going to be an adjustment.
“It’s a little frightening, but it’s a good feeling,” Eichfeld said in a 2008 Times Leader interview. “I’m nervous, but I’m ready for it to come.”
Now 26, Eichfeld had a different outlook before departing for Rio in late July.
“I’ve kind of had time for it to sink in,” he said. “It feels different than (in 2008 or 2012). It’s not that it’s less exciting or less emotional; it’s more just that I know what I expect from myself. I’m really excited to get down there, get on the water and absorb that environment with everyone’s energy.”
In Beijing, Eichfeld competed in the C2 with teammate Rick Powell and finished 11th. In 2012 in London, Eichfeld qualified in the C1 and finished 14th.
Heading into Rio, Eichfeld is in the midst of the most successful stretch of his career. He narrowly missed medaling in the 2015 World Championships with a fourth-place finish in C1. In the 2015 Pan American Games, he won gold in C1 and again in C2 along with McEwan. That carried over into first-place finishes in both events at this past spring’s U.S. Olympic Trials.
“My confidence is quite high,” Eichfeld said. “It feels good to know I can compete with the best in the world.”
Former U.S. national team member Aaron Mann has known Eichfeld for years and said he believes “he definitely has a very good chance at his best result,” particularly in C1. Mann noted that in 2008, Eichfeld’s main achievement was reaching the Games, and in 2012, the former Drums resident faced a battle that came down to the last race just to qualify.
“That took a real toll on him,” said Mann, now the director of communications for USA Canoe/Kayak. “This time he knew in April he was going to the Games. So he’s really focused on this, and it’s shown in his preparation.
“And he’s not going just stoked to be there, but to try to put himself on the podium. Not that he wasn’t trying before, but now he knows the experiences, the pressures and just how it’s different from any of the other events.”
One thing Eichfeld won’t have to worry about is the water.
Health risks are a major concern in these Olympics, especially after 13 U.S. athletes became ill last summer after competing in the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, which has shown high levels of viruses and bacteria from human waste, according to an Associated Press report.
But Eichfeld and his fellow slalom competitors will be at the manmade course at Whitewater Stadium, not the controversial lagoon.
“It’s been a topic (in the paddling community), certainly, just because it’s a water sport,” Eichfeld said. “But a lot of people don’t understand that (the slalom) … is in a glorified swimming pool. It’s independent from any other body of water. We have a very good situation.”
And plenty of people in Northeast Pennsylvania will watch it. That includes his parents, Kathy and Steve Eichfeld, who still live in Drums.
Casey has since moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, for training purposes. But Luzerne County remains on his mind.
“It’s still my hometown,” Eichfeld said. “I did a lot of my growing up there, and everyone has been really supportive. They always have messages of support, wishing me luck and watching competitions online. Home is still home. Everyone’s supporting me.
“Whether I’m in Charlotte or another country and I don’t want to train because it’s hot or I’m exhausted, that stuff is really helpful. It’s motivating to me, reminding me that everyone’s backing me. They don’t care how I (finish). They know that I’m chasing my dreams, and they love me.”